Working to end torture in New York

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PHOTO: Tyrrell Muhammad sitting with hands folded on panel.

Tyrrell Muhammad participating in a panel discussion on solitary at the Criminal Justice Caucus at Columbia University School of Social Work Beyond the Bars Conference in April 2013. Photo credit: Correctional Association

 

As the only organization with unrestricted access to New York’s prisons, the Correctional Association and its supporters play a crucial role in exposing abuse and ensuring that people behind bars are treated with dignity.

At any given moment in New York’s prisons, more than 4,000 men, women, and children are held in solitary confinement. Another 1,000 people are in solitary in New York City jails. CA staff members Scott Paltrowitz and Tyrrell Muhammad are leading our efforts to end what the United Nations calls torture — solitary confinement.

PHOTO: Scott Paltrowitz and volunteers from the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement hold banner that reads "SOLITARY IS TORTURE" and hand out materials about solitary confinement outside the State Office Building in Harlem, New York.

Scott Paltrowitz, an Associate Director of the CA’s Prison Visiting Project, and members of  the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement doing outreach to the community in Harlem.

 

Can you describe what being in solitary confinement is like?

Scott: Imagine you’re stuck in an elevator for three days, for 23-24 hours a day. Then imagine you are stuck in that elevator three more additional days, then five days, then a week, then a month, six months, a year, three years, then thirty years. That is exactly what is happening to people in solitary confinement in New York State. People are put in a box the size of an elevator and do not have meaningful human contact for days, weeks, months, years and in some cases decades. People in solitary have no access to meaningful programs, no education or vocational opportunities, and no jobs. They are left completely idle. It is the opposite of rehabilitation. The only interaction a person in solitary generally has with other human beings is when they are being escorted by a correction officer, or when they are fed through a food slot in their door.

Tyrrell: It’s like a kennel. For the majority of cases, people in solitary confinement are there for minor offenses; for such minor things as walking too slowly, because they don’t have a belt around their pants, because they have extra sheets, or for questioning authority, talking back to an officer, or filing grievances. When you are put “in the box” you can get anywhere from 30 to 90 days or up to many years, and the sentence can be extended due mostly to minor rule violations or retaliation by security staff. It is physically and psychologically abusive; you turn inward because you get frustrated. No one is listening and being held accountable for the injustice you are going through. I remember one time when I was in solitary, I had not heard from my family in three years because you are not allowed to make phone calls to anyone. It is devastating to find out that many of your loved ones have passed away while you were in solitary.

How is the CA tackling this issue?

Scott: Our work on the issue begins with monitoring the conditions for people held in solitary confinement during our prison visits and amplifying the voices of those individuals in our reports and advocacy. We then try to raise consciousness around the issue, and mobilize community members to help support a movement against solitary confinement and mass incarceration. We advocate, raise awareness, and build partnerships with people, organizations, and coalitions as part of the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC). The campaign is comprised of formerly incarcerated people, family members, concerned community members, and about 30 different organizations based in New York City and around the state. Our campaign engages with the media, participates in panels and workshops, and is building a presence on Facebook and Twitter. We have submitted testimony to the Legislature, and are working toward having comprehensive legislation that will end the torture of solitary confinement.

PHOTO: Tyrrell Muhammad wearing a purple polo shirt, face partially in the shadow. Photo credit: Bud Glick.

Tyrrell Muhammad served a total of seven years in solitary confinement during the course of his incarceration. He now works as an advocate and activist with the Correctional Association and the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. Photo credit: Bud Glick

 

Why should people get involved in the campaign?

Scott: We should all care about this issue because solitary confinement is torture. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture said that 15 days is the maximum amount of time that any person, regardless of their circumstances, should spend in isolation; beyond that amounts to torture or inhuman treatment. Our monitoring work has shown that people regularly spend months, years and even decades in solitary confinement. Even particularly vulnerable groups such as people with mental health needs, young people, pregnant women, people identifying as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, or Intersex, and people with disabilities are put in solitary, endangering their lives. These are our public dollars funding torture in our institutions.

Tyrrell: Many people who do time in solitary are released directly back to the community. We’re releasing psychologically harmed people. Some people don’t even know they are psychologically traumatized. We’re human beings, bottom-line. You don’t want people to come out feeling bitter about the world or less able to cope with their social environment. That’s why the CA is involved. I had to personally endure torture and that experience made me want to do something about this issue. I couldn’t continue to be silent about it.

How does the campaign involve the formerly incarcerated and their families in its efforts?

Tyrrell: Families of those on the inside and formerly incarcerated people are involved directly in meetings, panel discussions, and special events. We perform outreach to the community and recruit others to bring awareness to the issue. Some family members have gotten letters from their loved ones that describe conditions on the inside. We have wives, husbands, fathers, and mothers in our campaign. Through them, incarcerated people are being made aware there is an organization working to help them. Families are very much involved and the more we do our outreach, the more the community wants to engage in our work.